Improve Programming By Using A Learning Curve

A learning curve is defined as the advancement in apprehension of a given subject. Coaching is essentially teaching, so a better understanding of how individuals learn movements and skills is paramount. Furthermore, combining knowledge of how individuals learn and improving your technique of delivering that information creates an enhanced environment geared toward progressive learning, teaching, and - ultimately - performance.

When I began coaching, I was hired full time as a strength and conditioning coach at the collegiate level. Training was simple. I knew when and where I had teams and training times (sometimes up to a year in advance) and could plan everything I needed for that team. I could experiment with new techniques and track every data point I wanted. I could take an entire semester to teach more complex movements.

Little did I know that wouldn’t last forever. I have had two “ah-ha!” moments where my mindset shifted on how to organize and implement training more effectively. 

  • The first “ah-ha!” moment was when I took a new job as a head strength and conditioning coach. I was not only the department head, but was also the only strength coach. How could I train over 20 teams and 500 athletes by myself while writing programs specific to the sport, team, and individual? Further, how could I accomplish this while maintaining a schedule that provided systematic and progressive programs for an entire athletic department when I was the sole strength coach?
  • My second “ah-ha!” moment occurred a couple years later when I entered my current role as a tactical strength and conditioning coach. In this environment I work with individuals and teams with a substantial spread in age, training history, and injury history. Not to mention - I can’t go and watch “games” to properly evaluate performance and improve my programming. Again, how could I provide a consistent, tailored program to this specific population with so many variables?

I found myself in unknown and confusing territory over the course of several years. I was in environments where schedules were inconsistent, training age varied, and injury concerns and/or history varied. I wasn’t in the situation to be able to apply hands on coaching consistently.

olympic-lift-training

These are all major concerns especially when coaching and implementing more complex movements successfully. I am still in a constant state of trying to better understand and create a more thorough training environment, but that’s when coaching and program implementation collided with my ultimate “ah-ha!” moment of utilizing the learning curve.

My focus has been geared primarily toward the Olympic lifts and their variations as these are greatly effective, but often poorly executed. The following set of guidelines has provided me consistency in training, has allowed me to implement a vast number of complex movements, and can be applied through a wide range of applications.

1. Understanding Learning Leads To Better Teaching

One of the most basic questions for a strength coach is how to teach movements as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The learning curve provides a foundation on which to base movement progressions and regressions. It provides answers to training teams and individual specificity toward training history, training age, and injury concerns.

According to learning curves and related theories, individuals pick up on simple things very quickly. Knowledge then expands rapidly as learning increases only to subsequently stabilize.

To me, this was very similar to the force-velocity curve. Movements categorized on the faster end of the curve are very easily taught, learned, and executed. As weight and complexity of movement are increased, either combined or separate, a strength coach’s toolbox expands rapidly as movement progresses. This somewhat stalls when an athlete reaches the more complex movements.

So why not combine these two models to create a better training model? That was the question I set out to explore and provide answers to.

2. It's All In the Hips

I used to be the guy that was a firm believer in nothing but the Olympic lifts. I still am a supporter, but with my current state and past experiences I have learned those movements are not always necessary or possible. I am trying to train someone to improve performance in an activity, and the last time I checked that was not weightlifting...so I had to expand my horizons.

olympic

The important thing we are trying to achieve is triple extension which is a total body movement that allows full extension of the body from the ground up.

Ideally, I do want all those I work with to be able to execute some form of an Olympic movement, but realize it won’t be possible. Therefore, if I can provide a progressive assortment of movements achieving triple extension and athletic movement, I feel that I have accomplished my job.

3. Progress Movement First

This is fairly straightforward, but is often overlooked (I have been guilty of this many times). Simple is easy. Simple is also fast and athletic and easily understood. Starting with some simple plyometric movements and rapidly progressing to weighted movements that build on each other will produce performance increases the quickest.

For example:

Unweighted jumps → weighted jumps → weighted throws → weighted/unweighted combinations → Olympic variations → Olympic lift

4. Progress the Implement Next

When learning movement, you should be coaching and having your athletes understand just that – movement. Don’t overcomplicate things and confuse anyone when they are not only trying to learn new forms of movement but also how to navigate around an implement as well.

Try and make it as easy as possible to get the result you want with minimal distractions. The example above can be expanded upon to show how implement difficulty can increase in accordance with movement.

For example: 

Unweighted jumps (bodyweight only) → weighted jumps (weight vest → dumbbells/kettlebells → bars) → weighted throws (medballs and other weighted throwing implements) → weighted/unweighted combinations (combination of dumbbells, kettlebells, medballs, etc.) → Olympic variations (dumbells/kettlebells → medballs → sandbags → trap bars → straight bars) → Olympic lifts (barbell)

5. Variety Allows for Progression and Regression

As given in the basic examples above, you can see how I progress athletic movement and properly overload the movement over time.

Olympic-Lifts

If an athlete needs to regress at any time due to injury, learning the movement, etc., simply have the athlete regress back down the progression. That gives them time to relearn and solidify needed patterns before increasing difficulty again. That can be the movement altogether (jumps vs. throws) or within a movement itself (moving from a bar to dumbbells).

Once you have progressed your athletes to an adequate level, then you can manipulate a number of variables to make it more difficult such as sets, reps, volume, etc. One of my favorite methods is to combine everything they have learned into a variety of movements and implements and make complexes to reinforce the movement and increase difficulty.

This is also an easy way to apply specific conditioning demands for your population and allow for training variety within teams and individual skill levels.

Learning Curve

Movement is key to performance and teaching how to move better, more efficiently, and more specifically to the requirements of the activity leads to improved performance.

By utilizing a model that provides for individual variation within a team training environment while also allowing the ability to progress and regress as required results in an improved training model that will constantly adapt and lead to maximum results in the shortest amount of time.

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About The Author

John Mackersie is a strength and conditioning specialist currently serving in the tactical community. Prior to his current role he served in the same capacity in the NCAA working with a variety of sports. John has a Master’s in Sport Psychology from Miami University (OH). Learn more and contact John on his Instagram account (M_StrongER) or email him at mackerjc@gmail.com.

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